This year’s State of the City and County Luncheon, sponsored by the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, took a solemn twist when Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson read a note from Kyle Jackson, the stepfather of slain Mobile Police officer Justin Billa, recounting the day Billa was laid to rest. It made reference to the scores of Mobilians who lined the street as the procession rolled by.
“I want Mobile to know; as we drove from the funeral home to the graveyard (sic) we saw you,” Stimpson read from the podium. “Today, Mobile, we saw you. Today, Mobile, you are my hero.”
In his address, Stimpson said the note illustrated that the “good things” happening are being noticed “even in our toughest and saddest time.”
Stimpson acknowledge, Justin’s widow Erin Billa in the audience for her work on the Justin Billa Memorial Foundation, and Margo Andrews, his MPD partner, for putting her uniform on every day to help keep the city safe.
“Even with your broken hearts, by your example and your actions you are helping improve the quality of life in Mobile,” he said. “In doing so, you are contributing to creating One Mobile. You are part of our story.”
Among successes this year, Stimpson highlighted two of the city’s largest private employers, Airbus and Austal.
“God willing, as momentum continues to build, greater things are yet to come,” he said. “Just think of the impact of Airbus building 12 jets per month. Yes, four years from now, we could be building 12. Also, think about the additional impact that Austal will have if they are chosen to build the fast frigate.”
Austal USA is among five finalists to build the newest frigate to replace the littoral combat ship, the Defense Department announced earlier this year. Also competing are Huntington Ingalls, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics Bath Iron Works, and Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri.
Stimpson continued, mentioning the possibility of growth in the medical and university communities, as well as a deepened shipping channel, port expansions, rebuilt roads and the planned I-10 bridge over the Mobile River.
In what is normally a positive reflection of the past year, Stimpson made several mentions of challenges facing Mobile in the future. One is stagnant population growth. He showed a graphic illustration a slight decrease in the city’s population over the last several decades.
“Sadly, as you can see, the city’s population is less today than it was in 1960,” he said. “I hope this is as startling to you as it is to me. This can be changed and it must be changed.”
Growth within the city must be a priority, Stimpson said.
Another challenge Stimpson mentioned comes from Mobile Regional Airport. While the airport in West Mobile shared a similar number of daily flights as Pensacola International Airport in 1990, the rival to the east has seen a dramatic increase to about 1 million more enplanements per year now. This has led Pensacola’s airport to have cheaper and more direct flights, he said.
“Today, those in leadership of our airports are embracing change by challenging the status quo,” he said. “They envision a vibrant downtown airport with easy access and affordable flights to great destinations.”
Stimpson highlighted Via Air’s plan to fly to Orlando from Brookley, “as soon as a terminal is built.” Via will begin flying out of Mobile Regional Airport next week.
“The status quo would say ‘this is controversial. There are a whole lot of citizens who don’t fly and don’t care about this,’” Stimpson said. “My response is you don’t have to fly to be positively affected by the economic impact of a million more people flying out of Mobile.”
Other challenges facing the city, Stimpson said, included education, crime and maintenance costs related to old city-owned properties.
In the county address, County Commission President Connie Hudson highlighted a number of positives. She mentioned the 10 percent cost of living raise awarded to law enforcement officers last year and the more than $1 million given since 2016 to improve ADA compliance among county infrastructure.
Hudson told the crowd the county’s housing market has remained strong, providing an increase in tax revenue. She touted more than $100 million in funding for roads and bridges, as well as the distribution centers developed by Walmart and Amazon on the economic development side.
Hudson also mentioned the soccer complex approved near the intersection of interstates 10 and 65, where a scaled-down version of the project is on tap now with a $3.8 million first phase. Other projects include the renovation of a building in Grand Bay for a library facility, the purchase of a park in Bayou La Batre and the refurbishing of a computer lab at the Mobile County Training School in Plateau.
The county’s recycling center, Hudson said, remains popular with more than 3 million pounds of recycling taken in last year.
Bill Sisson, president and CEO of the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce, highlighted the economic development success of the organization last year. The chamber took credit for 657 new, full-time jobs coming to the area. Those jobs, Sisson said, brought an average salary of $66,000 per year and represented $321 million in capital investments.